Dale Cozort returns with another edition of The Alphabet of Alternate History. If you haven't read it already, check out the letter B.
Cambodia/Vietnam War causes a China/Soviet Clash: On December 25, 1978, Vietnam launched a blitzkrieg war against the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. The offensive took most of Cambodia by January 7, 1979, leaving only a few pockets of resistance and some guerilla fighting. The rapid collapse of the Cambodian regime apparently took China, which was allied with Cambodia, by surprise. The Chinese reacted too late to keep their ally from getting pushed out of most of Cambodia, but on February 17, 1979 they invaded northern Vietnam to take the pressure off the surviving Khmer Rouge forces and allow those forces to regroup. They succeeded to some extent in that goal and Khmer Rouge guerilla resistance remained an annoyance for the Vietnamese for many years.
At the time military commentators did a lot of speculating on what the Soviet reaction to the Chinese invasion of Vietnam would be. Would the Soviets respond to the Chinese invasion of Vietnam by invading China? It was a plausible, if unlikely, route to a war between great, nuclear-armed powers and the world watched carefully.
Complicating the situation, top Chinese leaders had just finished a highly public and very friendly tour of the US, raising the suspicion among the very paranoid Soviets that the Chinese might have sought and gotten US support before they invaded Vietnam. So as a worst case scenario, the Chinese invade Vietnam, the Soviets invade China, the US intervenes on the Chinese side and we end up with World War III.
That wasn't very likely given the high cost of war between nuclear-armed powers, but let's see if the situation can be ramped up a little closer to that outcome than what historically happened. Note that this is obviously not a desirable outcome, just a possible one.
What could have kept the Khmer Rouge regime from folding as quickly as it did? For one thing, it made a mistake when it pitted it's roughly 73,000 man army in a conventional defense against a Vietnamese invasion force of 150,000 men with a lot more firepower. The Khmer Rouge lost over half their army in the very early going. Cambodia didn't have a lot of space to trade for time and they were probably afraid the Vietnamese would establish a 'liberated zone in any part of the country they were able to grab. At the same time, the Khmer Rouge needed to not sit in front of the sledgehammer and get smashed by it. The Chinese were rushing arms to upgrade the Khmer Rouge army and had up to ten thousand advisers working with it.
If more of the Khmer Rouge army had survived the initial assault and been able to mount a more protracted resistance, the Chinese would have had more time to bring the Khmer Rouge up to a higher level and launch the invasion of Vietnam to preserve the Khmer Rouge as a conventional force rather than a guerilla one.
The stronger the Khmer Rouge/Chinese were, the more chance that the Soviets would have to get involved. On the other hand, Soviet involvement wouldn't have to be direct. The Soviets had more sophisticated weapons than the Chinese at that time and would probably have just supplied the Vietnamese with a larger quantity and quality of weapons rather than getting involved directly.
If Vietnam got in too much trouble and weapons shipments couldn't get them out of it, the Soviets might have decided that a limited set of border skirmishes would emphasize the danger of pushing further to the Chinese leadership, in which case things get very dangerous, but the Chinese army wasn't modern enough and didn't have good enough logistics along the Chinese/Vietnamese border to pose too much of a danger to the Vietnamese, given Soviet arms continuing to flow to the Vietnamese. Plus, the Chinese weren't out to conquer Vietnam, just distract the Vietnamese from Cambodia and they were careful to signal the limited nature of what they were doing.
Bottom line: This thing turning into even a limited Soviet/China war was unlikely. It would have also required that the Khmer Rouge remain more powerful longer and that was one regime that needed to go into history's ash heap as quickly as possible. At the same time, people at the time were concerned about a wider war, and that kind of confrontation was a significant, though unlikely possibility.
A China ruled by neither Nationalists or Communists:
I'll try to simplify this as much as possible without giving you the wrong impression. You should be aware that there were other significant players in the huge, many-sided battle to decide who reunified China.
With that in mind, in the early 1920s through late 1924, you can visualize the competition for China as primarily a three-sided affair. The Fengtian clique controlled Manchuria, headed by the guy westerners called the Old Marshal. At this point, the Old Marshal was supported by the Japanese, though that support was loose and provisional. He also had White Russian military advisers and mercenaries, exiles from the Russian Civil War.
The rival Zhili clique ruled much of the rest of Northern China, including Beijing. It controlled much of the surviving Chinese bureaucracy, was recognized as the official government of China by the British and the US and had an impressive military reputation. It was the strongest surviving faction of the now-splintered Beijing army, a comparatively well-trained and well-organized army that had been built up by the Manchu dynasty after the disastrous war with Japan, and which then turned on the Manchus and played the role of kingmaker for a few years before splintering into warlord factions.
Further south, Sun Yat Sen's nationalists, then a coalition of Nationalists and Communists, were gaining strength with the help of Russian weapons and advisers, but had little influence in Northern China.
The Manchuria-based Fengtians and the Beijing-based Zhili fought two major wars. The first was in 1922 and the Zhili won rather easily. They chased the Fengtians back to Manchuria but weren't strong enough to challenge them in their stronghold.
The Zhili spent the next couple years consolidating their power in Northern China. They seemed unbeatable and likely to be the group that finally reunited China.
The Fengtians had other ideas though. They spent the next two years preparing for round two and they prepared well. Their leadership included an economic genius who brought the economy under control and sent it booming, with a stable currency and a great deal of growth. The Fengtians poured money from that growing economy into their military, expanding their army from 100,000 men to as many as 300,000, equipping them with tanks (French FT-17s) and buying over a hundred, maybe as many as three hundred aircraft--fighters and bombers. They also built up local military production, producing mortars and well as other artillery, ammunition and an impressive number of rifles. They didn't neglect logistics, building roads and railroads to give their military more mobility.
Finally, in late 1924, the Fengtians tried another go at the Zhili. In spite of the Fengtian build-up, the struggle seemed to be developing into a stalemate. Then the Fengtians played their hole card. The Zhili commander nearest Beijing suddenly switched sides and captured the capital, along with much of the Zhili leadership. There is some evidence that the Japanese provided an enormous bribe to motivate him to switch sides. The Zhili pulled some of their best troops off the front line to retake the capital. The Fengtians took advantage of the confusion and demoralization to take the offensive. Other warlord groups that had previously stayed neutral jumped in on the Fengtian side.
The remaining Zhili fought hard, but forty thousand of their troops were trapped and forced to surrender. With a few months, Zhili power near Beijing was broken.
At that point, the Fengtians seemed to have won. Manchurian forces were going to conquer and reunify China again, though with Chinese leadership this time.
Fortunately or unfortunately, that didn't happen. The warlords that the Zhili had suppressed made a comeback. The remaining Zhili reformed under new leadership, diminished, but still powerful. The general who had betrayed the Zhili formed his own faction and soon was fighting against the Fengtians. A Fengtian commander revolted against the clique and joined an anti-Fengtian coalition. The war kept dragging on, with the Fengtians increasingly overstretched and the Manchurian economy struggling to pay for that oversized army.
Finally the Fengtian economic genius resigned, recognizing that there was no way to keep the economy going with the huge drain from the war. His replacement quickly tanked what was left of the economy trying to make the Manchurian economy pay for far more war than it could afford.
The series of wars was very destructive and the many betrayals gradually delegitimized all the factions. Chinese public opinion, which had to some extent looked to these factions as possible leaders of a united China, was appalled at the costly, pointless struggles. They started looking at the Nationalists and Communists as possible unifying forces. Beijing became a much less important prize as the bureaucracy dispersed and the factions fighting for it neared bankruptcy. In 1926 and again, more successfully, in 1928, the Nationalists moved north. They destroyed the remaining Zhili and pushed the Fengtians back to Manchuria, badly defeating a Fengtian army.
In June 1928, the Japanese assassinated the Old Marshall, head of the Fengtians, when he fled from Northern China and headed back to Manchuria. That was the start of the successful Japanese effort to take over Manchuria and turn it into a puppet state.
Unfortunately, the Nationalists were only able to take Northern China with the help of warlords that allied themselves with the Nationalists, but had agendas of their own. Those warlords were nominally Nationalist, at least when they weren't revolting against the central government, and wore Nationalist uniforms, but central government rule remained more fiction than reality in Northern China through 1937, when the Japanese invasion made the point moot.
What Might Have Happened: The Zhili and the Fengtians were both a cut above the run of the mill Chinese warlords. The Fengtians could probably have survived indefinitely as rulers of a de facto independent Manchuria. They just weren't capable of conquering or at least of holding and ruling, the bulk of China. The Japanese were far more of a threat to their power base than the Zhili were. A slightly more paranoid (toward the Japanese) leadership, or a revolt at a strategic time could have kept the Fengtians at home, at least in 1924. Could the Old Marshall's ambitions been channeled into building a strong, unified, independent Manchuria? Could he have become suspicious enough of Japanese intentions in Manchuria that he stayed out of the rest of China's politics?
Would a strong, unified Manchuria have been enough to keep Manchuria out of Japanese hands? Maybe. The Japanese coup that took Manchuria was the work of a renegade faction of the Japanese military, which became strong in the Japanese military when the coup succeeded easily and brought Manchuria's wealth into Japanese hands cheaply. The easy victory encouraged Japanese militarism and led to the Japanese taking bigger and bigger bites out of China until the loss of territory forced Chinese factions together and pushed Japan into a war they couldn't win and couldn't get out of without disastrous loss of face.
But what about China? If the Fengtians had stayed in Manchuria, could the Zhili clique have eventually unified China? Probably not. They were too prone to splintering themselves, as the war with the Fengtians in 1924 illustrated. The urge to split off and compete for power militarily seemed to be in the air in China in the 1920s and 1930s, with a bewildering array of factions competing, some of them little more than bandits and some of them reasonably competent groups who governed their areas well and worked to bring them economic growth.
The Zhili did, at least initially, stand for attempting to reunify China through negotiations rather than force, so it is possible that they might have been able to come up with some kind of unification of at least the core of China.
With the Fengtians out of the way, the Nationalists would have been the main competition, at least early on. At first, the Nationalists were a coalition of Nationalists and Communists, supported by the Soviet Union, which trained and equipped the Nationalist army early on. That coalition splintered, with the Communists purged and the survivors forced to take refuge in remote areas. The non-Communist Nationalists splintered for a while after the purge, with rival Nationalist governments in Nanjing and Wuhan for a while in the mid-to-late 1920s.
With the bewildering number of factions and the tendency toward factionalism, encouraged by the Japanese who wanted to keep China weak, Chinese politics of the warlord era is very hard to predict. Would the Nationalists still have splintered, then come back together with a powerful and intact Zhili faction still in control of the Chinese bureaucracy at Beijing? Would the Nationalists been able to launch a successful Northern Expedition without the costly and chaotic wars that wracked northern and central China in the years before that expedition? Who, if anyone, would have unified China?
Charles I Wins the English Civil War? I'm dipping into waters I'm not horribly comfortable with here. If I step in it too badly, I hope British AH fans step in to correct me. Based on my reading, it looks as though the Royalists had a shot at winning the English Civil War fairly conclusively in late 1642 to early 1643. After that, power shifted more and more to the Parliament's forces and a Royalist victory became less and less likely. At one point in early 1643, the Parliament's sole remaining army in the field, demoralized by previous defeats, was nearly surrounded and cut in half by the Royalists, but managed to survive and force a stalemate. What if Parliament had lost badly there, losing the bulk of their army and demoralizing Parliament's forces further. Charles mops up remaining opposition over the next few months, and the English Civil War is, at least temporarily, over.
What happens next? Is Charles able to consolidate support, or do his actions spark another rebellion? What does he do to rebellious members of Parliament? Does he reconstitute Parliament with those members who remained loyal to him or neutral? Does he try to diminish the role of Parliament? Abolish it altogether? Replace it with a less powerful body?
If Charles remains in power, what impact does that have on the colonies? New England's Puritans built their colonies partly in reaction to what they saw as royal misrule. They would undoubtedly resist royal rule, at least passively. They would also probably gain a large number of refugees, some of them even fugitives from royal retribution.
Much of the English fleet supported the Parliament. Would it continue to do so as Charles reasserted his authority? Would part of the fleet flee to the New World to continue the fight?
What impact would all this have on the Thirty Years War, then raging in Europe? England had continental interests and dynastic ties. Would it get sucked into fighting on the continent more than it was historically?
Canada Bigger (or Smaller): The War of 1812 is a war most Americans would prefer to forget, with the possible exception of the Battle of New Orleans, which happened after peace negotiations were pretty much wrapped up. Britain fought the war on the cheap, with most of its resources focused on the Napoleonic Wars in Europe until the fall of Napoleon. In spite of that lack of resources, Britain held chunks of American territory through much of the early part of the war, especially around Detroit, and when the British regulars were released from the Napoleonic wars, they did rather well against the US.
The war ended up as a stalemate, with no significant territory changing hands. What if significant amounts of territory had changed hands at the end of the war? If the British had held onto control of Lake Erie, they would have probably held onto Detroit and the vicinity. They were attempting to build a British-dominated Indian state in that area, with the help of Tecumseh and his Indian allies. So, the Brits still control Detroit when Napoleon falls and releases British resources for North America. The Brits want to wind the war down, but on as good a terms as they can get. The US military is doing better after a dismal first couple years, but with British power flowing to North America, they might be forced to give up on some then thinly populated border areas to come up with a peace agreement.
On the other hand, if the Napoleonic wars had been prolonged, Britain might have lost some Canadian territory to the resurgent US forces. After his losses in Russia, Napoleon was probably doomed in the long run, but he raised new armies and won some victories even after that. Change a few details (one key prematurely blown bridge) at the Battle of Leipzig and Napoleon might have been able to fight on for several more months. His defeats in late 1813 tended to build on each other, as German allies defected and elements inside France began preparing to switch side.
Canal: Okay. Let's toss in a wild one. So your standard issue reasonably benevolent Alien Space Bats stop by Earth orbit around 1490, look around the planet and say, “You know, this is a planet that may really take off soon—have an industrial revolution, get into space and all that good stuff. One problem though: Their planet is trapped in a cycle of recurring ice ages and spends most of its time with much of the continent most likely to do an industrial revolution under ice sheets.”
They analyze the potential danger. Earth is in a climate pattern that has two relatively stable conditions: ice age advances and interglacial periods like the one we're currently in. Variations in the Earth’s orbit and tilt determine which of those climates it falls in, but there is a caveat: Through most of the Earth’s cycle, the climate will remain in whichever state it is already in. Why? Ice ages feed on themselves by reflecting more sunlight back into space. Interglacial tend to maintain themselves because more of the sun’s energy sticks around to heat up the place.
So there are a few points in Earth’s cycle where we’re going to go into an ice age whatever the pre-existing climate and a few points where we’re going to warm up into an inter-glacial pretty much no matter how much ice there was to begin. Then there are the ambiguous times, the ones where climate will stay in whichever state it’s in until something knocks it out. Sometimes it takes a lot to knock climate out of the stable zone. Sometimes it doesn’t take much.
The benevolent ASBs calculate that we’re in ambiguous times—that a big enough volcano (a Yellowstone Super-eruption or one as big as the one that happened around 70,000 years ago could push us over into an ice age. So could a big enough meteor—not a planet-buster or a dinosaur-killer, just a fair-sized meteor that tossed enough crap into the stratosphere that we didn’t get summers for a few years, long enough for ice to build up and increase the Earth’s albedo. Ice age climate would, according to their calculations, abort the budding industrialization.
So what is the ASB solution? Sea level passages between North and South America and Eurasia and Africa to allow ocean currents to flow near the equator rather than near the poles as they currently do. That warms up the oceans and makes ice ages very difficult.
Okay, being the skeptical types that you are, you’re undoubtedly thinking that I’m mostly looking for a contrived way to get a sea-level Panama passage at the time of European exploration. That’s totally—true. That’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m also hand-waving away the probability that truly benevolent ASBs would probably look at proposed sea level passages and realize that they would totally change Earth’s climate, probably posing more threat to the budding industrialization than ice ages. Hand wave: maybe the ASBs are from a warmer planet and find the possibility of ice ages abhorrent and warmth the natural order of things.
In any case, the ASBs press a button with the tips of their wing-fingers and vaporize enough land to create sea level straits in Panama or Nicaragua and maybe where the Suez canal is in Egypt. These passages are deep enough and wide enough to accommodate quite a bit of ocean current and incidentally, a lot of ships.
Presto. We now have our Europe going out into the world and finding a different geography, one where you really can get to Asia by ship heading west, though the trip is too long to really be practical. Maybe while they’re at it, the ASBs cut a canal through Baja California. Not really necessary, but it changes the geopolitics of northwestern Mexico a lot.
If the ASB geo-engineering works, the oceans will gradually get warmer, warming the planet. The warming would have limits. We’ve been about where the warming would go to back in the Pliocene. Eventually Greenland’s glacier would mostly disappear, causing a considerable sea-level rise. From old and possibly faulty memory, sea level would go up about 20 feet. The less stable West Antarctic ice sheet would go into a cycle of collapsing and rebuilding, further raising sea levels during the collapses. The larger East Antarctic ice sheet would mostly remain stable. West Antarctica would be a huge cold island during the period when it wasn’t ice covered. I could see it being one of the last colonized places on Earth. As to how long these changes would take: I honestly don’t know. If it took hundreds of years for the ice sheets to collapse, then we might not see Europe being able to use the new lands. If it took a shorter time, suddenly Greenland and some of the arctic islands become prime real estate, probably competed for by the European powers.
Of course this would totally change what crops can be grown where, destroy polar bears as the kind of species they currently are, though based on recent studies they’re adaptable enough that they may survive, and allow diseases like the nasty African malaria to extend into Europe. Actually, given enough time, Europe’s climate would eventually be able to support both monkeys and apes, though it would be a trick for them to get there given the sea level passage between Africa and the Middle East. Maybe they would come in from India once a rain forest corridor was established. And, of course, pretty much every port city in the world would be flooded, and a huge number of islands would vanish entirely. An interesting world, but probably not a nurturing place for industrial revolutions.